Methuen Drama Student Edition
In the vast majority of cases, even the best writers of plays are primarily intent on writing work that generates high drama, which will excite and/or amuse live audiences whereas novelists are much more likely to be designated as the creators of literary masterpieces. There are exceptions that prove the rule, but they only tend to come along on a handful of occasions in any generation. Think Shakespeare / Chekhov / Ibsen.
Even though he is yet to celebrate his 40th birthday, James Graham has effortlessly made the leap from dramatist to composer of works that qualify as modern literary classics. This House is already generally accepted as something very special and, having enjoyed the experience on both stages at the National Theatre and then in the West End, this critic assumed that he had the measure of the piece.
However, this new student’s edition presents an opportunity to read the text at leisure and appreciate both the technical skills underpinning the play and the research and imagination that allow it to be read and comfortably survive the kind of analytical demands that one might put on the canons of Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf.
The edition helpfully starts with a series of introductory pages written by Nicholas Holden, Lecturer in Drama at the University of Greenwich. These put the play into historical perspective, providing background information about the circumstances that led to a series of hung parliaments almost 50 years ago. He also offers a glossary of parliamentary terms and explains why the arrival of This House almost a decade ago was so appropriate in terms of the political machinations at that time.
As Holden identifies, the starting point is unlikely. Where any other writer would have concentrated his or her attention on the leading players of the day, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, with James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher coming along in their wake, Graham chooses to focus on the parties’ engine rooms. This means that we only learn about the headline makers obliquely. Instead, viewers (and in this case readers) are introduced to the party whips and literally dozens of MPs whom they control.
For those steeped in political history, many of the characters only identified by their Parliamentary constituencies are instantly recognisable. For example, we meet John Stonehouse, who faked his own death in a vain attempt to avoid criminal charges, Jeffrey Rooker and Audrey Wise, rebellious MPs from the Midlands who together brought the struggling Labour government down, and Norman St John-Stevas, a man not wholly flattered by an accurately caricatured portrait.
This play really has everything. There is constant drama, high farce, great humanity and a portrait not only of politicians but also the troubled state of the country that they collectively represented. As such, those of us who busily spent our student days reading dry but worthy plays and novels should be deeply envious of the younger generation able to cut their teeth on exciting literature like this.
While reading the script of a play rarely, if ever, substitutes for seeing a high-quality production, such as Jeremy Herrin’s of This House, in these current troubled times this is undoubtedly a must-read book.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher